There’s a bittersweet tinge to Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season. Though the celebratory 2022-23 season featured production highlights like the Indiana premiere of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady and a season-concluding hit in the classic whodunit Clue, the season also marked the final hurrah for IRT’s longest-running artistic director Janet Allen, who has, in some way, shape, or form, been around IRT for four of its five decades.
“It was certainly not as festive as a 50th before COVID might have been,” Allen conceded during a joint interview alongside Benjamin Hanna, who was announced as Allen’s successor earlier this year. “COVID is still very, very present in our lives, in terms of trying to keep the work onstage and trying to keep understudies ready and all that stuff. It certainly had its challenges, but it’s a great milestone.”
Allen’s time at IRT dates back to 1980 when she worked as the company’s dramaturg and literary manager. She stepped away for a stint in New York City before returning later that decade to serve as associate artistic director. In 1996, Allen was promoted to artistic director, and for over half the lifespan of IRT, she has led the company artistically and as co-CEO, most recently alongside managing director and co-CEO Suzanne Sweeney.
There has been no shortage of flowers for Allen as she steps into retirement. The city of Indianapolis’s mayor’s office declared June 6, 2023, Janet Allen Day in Indianapolis, and Governor Eric J. Holcomb awarded Allen with the Sagamore of the Wabash. The latter award puts Allen alongside presidents, athletes, and other celebrities. It was an honor that Allen said was “kind of surreal.”
“In our world, you expect corporate, foundation people to get all these accolades,” Allen said.
Additionally, in early June, IRT announced its $6 million Back to the Future capital campaign, which will, in part, support the renaming of the organization’s Upperstage Theatre to honor Allen. That little surprise, Allen said, was something her colleagues around the building were able to keep secret from her for two years. “Either I am super not observant or they were really good,” Allen joked.
They were just really good, Hanna reasoned. As Allen passes the IRT baton to Hanna, local audiences will already be familiar with his work. As a director, he has led productions of Fahrenheit 451, The Book Club Play, and this season’s Clue. As a six-year associate artistic director at the theatre, he inaugurated IRT’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access initiatives. Previously, Hanna’s experience has included stops at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, and Penumbra Theatre Company (now the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing) in St. Paul, Minn.
Earlier this week, Allen, Hanna, and I took a look ahead to Hanna’s tenure, spoke about theatre sustainability, and discussed the unique challenges and opportunities that come with running a theatre deep in the heart of the Midwest. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: Janet, what made it feel like this was the right time to step away?
JANET ALLEN: Well, this was not a fast decision. I actually started talking to board chairs eight years ago about looking down the pike. I said, “I think I’ll be an age where I’m going to be ready to be done by then.” Originally, we were going to do a two-year announcement, but then COVID hit, we opted not to do that. But I mostly am just ready for the theatre to have new leadership and I’m ready to have a new chapter.
When I look at Bob Falls and Barbara Gaines and a lot of us that are retiring, I think it’s arguable that we stayed in our seats too long, because the generation ahead of us really did. They stayed in their seats for a long time. We were with one of our major funders yesterday, and our board chair said this is a once-in-a-generation kind of leadership change, and I don’t think that’s going to be true going forward. I don’t think that people your guys’ age want to stay in these jobs forever. So I think we’re just in a big period of change, which is really good and really necessary.
Ben, you’ve been around IRT for a few years now, so can you both talk to me about the benefits of being able to pass the baton to somebody who has been in the building, who knows the organization?
JANET: It is dreamy good. I was promoted from associate artistic director. Our managing director was promoted from CFO. So our boards just think that’s normal, and we’re always saying to them, it’s not that normal in our business. We did a national search that was an important piece of our puzzle, but it was wonderful to be able to hand all this to Ben, because there’s nothing to hand. He holds it all already.
BENJAMIN HANNA: When I was hired [as an associate], we sat down and I said, this is a step on my way to artistic leadership. Whether it’s here or somewhere else was to be determined. And how long I stayed here was about our relationship, about whether I’m still being of service to the institution, and whether I’m still growing also. When it became real that this is the time, the question was not just, do they want me, but do I want them? Do we want to move forward together? And as a lot of my colleagues are going through search processes right now, it is really about building a relationship that feels like you’re in the right space for each other in that moment.
I think what Janet mentioned about maybe it’s not once in a generation is partially because we’re re-navigating how long one can be of service and healthy and whole in a community. COVID has changed some of our culture of what we want from our career, our space, our work/life balance. I don’t know that so many people now are approaching CEO roles with, “I want to do this for 25 years,” because we also know the weight of those roles. We know the sacrifice of those roles along with the benefits that come with it.
Janet, you’ve seen Ben behind the scenes. What is an aspect of Ben’s leadership style or personality that you think makes him the right person for this role moving forward?
JANET: Ben’s authenticity as a human, his excellent listening skills, his open-heartedness, his desire to make work holistically, humanly, his joy in storytelling—those are all things that I sensed about him when he was interviewing for the associate artistic director job. Then I certainly learned that all those things were extraordinarily true when he got here.
We serve a multi-generational audience and we serve a very, very broad audience. We serve people who go to the theatre all over the world and are very sophisticated arts consumers. But we also serve people who have never been to a city and never been in a parking garage and never eaten in a city restaurant and who come to see Christmas Carol because it’s a big treat they’ve heard about from other people. It is really hard to get your arms around all those ends of the spectrum. Ben came with already a lot of experience in multi-generational [audiences], and that was key. You have to have that.
He’s also a Midwesterner, and I’ve got to say—it is not that you cannot lead an institution like this coming from a coast or from a major city, but it takes some change in values and pace and thinking, and it takes some greater largess and some less cynical edges. Ben had done time on coasts, I had done time on coasts, and that idea of coming back to the Midwest, as both of us did, I think has a lot of value.
The other piece that Ben brought that we did not have institutionally was a real deep training and practice of DEI work. That was something I was very intentionally looking for when he came here as an associate. He had real deep feet in that work, and we needed that work desperately. We had done some of that work, but all of it external. We needed an internal advocate and ally and languager and pusher about this work.
Ben, as you look at the years you’ve been able to work with Janet, but also Janet’s overall legacy, can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been able to take away from her work with this organization and how you hope to build on that as you move forward?
BEN: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. One of the things that I’ve learned from Janet, she used to tell me, “I can see you consternating. I can see you overthinking something that in your gut you know. You know what the answer is in your heart, in your spirit. You know.” If your gut and your moral compass and your values say do this thing, then what you should do is do it and then deal with the aftermath.
The way that decisions were made for the community, that forward-thinking mentality, is why we are sustainable. The willingness to make those decisions about the future and not just the present, not just, “Do I feel good about this moment,” but, “Am I preparing for the next generation? Am I making sure that there will be a theatre here 10 years from now, 50 years from now?” I think so many artistic leaders that I have worked for before are thinking about the present moment and the present project. In doing so, often they prepare an unstable future for other artists to make work, because they’re not actually thinking about the resources that will be required for the future.
I think we share a love of making art in service to community. These are community organizations—the way that we access them, the way that we have to think about the barriers that were created far before we were in these roles and how we have to dismantle them. Janet said to me, as a new associate, “What barriers do you see? What do you see that I am doing right now that needs to be dismantled or that I kept from my predecessor or that the institution is holding because of a financial X or Y? We have to think about how to dismantle those things.”
You’ve touched on it a little bit, so I’d love to ask more directly for you both to talk about the unique nature of being the regional theatre for Indianapolis, and Indiana specifically. Especially for you, Janet, I’m curious if there’s anything that you wish you knew about running this company, in this region, in this state, in this city, when you first started as artistic director in ’96 that you now know?
JANET: Because I was associate artistic director for 10 years before I was artistic director, I felt like I knew a lot about Indiana. I was the first artistic director that was not from New York to lead this theatre, and that mattered to me. I was born in Chicago and grew up in central Illinois and went to Indiana University to graduate school. I started to get this idea that we were doing a lot of world canon stuff, but we weren’t looking for anything that was really about our own backyard.
I’m a dramaturg by discipline and passion before I became an associate and then an artistic director. One of the first things I did as artistic director was launch what eventually became the Indiana series, in which we’ve commissioned many plays. We’ve found and produced plays that were based on a piece of Indiana history or literature. Really, we’re trying to mine: What is it to live here? That was an important piece to me, and I think certainly to our donors, because we now have a restricted endowment that commissions for the Indiana series.
We did that many years ago because I think it represents that, yes, in fact there are many values to living in the Midwest that are different. While some of them may be similar living in Ohio or Indiana or Kentucky or Michigan or Iowa, there’s also really place-specific things. Many of them are not happy stories. One of the hardest ones was a commission we did with Charles Smith. Charles had done several commissions for us, and he was to try to find a play in the Marian, Ind., lynching in 1930, a very searing piece of Indiana history. It was one of the last lynchings in the United States, just an unspeakably horrible event in large part because it was memorialized as a photo and then sold as a souvenir.
It took Charles a very long time to find his way to what this play (The Gospel According to James) had to be. Those journeys have been the journeys that have really mattered to me personally. How do we make a play? How do we activate a playwright’s curiosity and intuition and zeal to find plays in history here?
BEN: I think what Janet said at the beginning is really important. Being the only one, you’re going to be the first for so many people. Some of the barriers in this building are just the fact that it actually looks too epic. I can’t see that I would be able to go into that building. We don’t go into those buildings anymore. We go into malls that are concrete boxes, so that is accessible. But because we’re not contemporary, because we look like a strange palace of some kind, there is this inaccessibility just in the building itself.
How we program to invite people who will not come to The Reclamation of Madison Hemings, because that’s just a step too far for their first theatre experience—it’s important here to remember that we are programming for every one of our neighbors. Going to see Clue is very accessible because of the film, because of the board game. Then, once you’ve sat in the theatre and you’ve seen Clue, then maybe the content of something else might be interesting to you. Now the building is not the barrier. The parking is not the barrier. Maybe even the ticket cost, which you thought would be $300 because you saw Mean Girls on Broadway once or on the Broadway tour, now you realize there is a maybe more accessible ticket price for you.
JANET: When I was associate artistic director, I heard a story from a board member that has really stuck with me. It was Libby Appel’s last production as artistic director before me, and she was doing The Tempest with six actors that was very highly theatrical and very much about transformation. I was explaining to a board member who has a lot of privilege, travels extensively, sees art all over the world, and I said, “This is going to be a production of Tempest like you have never seen.” He said, “Janet, I’ve never seen The Tempest. I just want to see The Tempest. I don’t want to see some big old riff on it.”
This is what Ben’s talking about. For many of our audiences, not only are they going to see a classic play for the first time, they’re going to see it for the only time. Now, you can let that pressure crush you, or you can remember as you are inventing—and we have to invent to be artists, we’re always going to be making it out of ourselves and our companies in the moment that we’re in—but it’s so important to remember all the time that, for many people in our audiences, this is the first time they’ve seen a classic play, and it might be the only time. They want to come out with some really indelible memories. That’s our context, and it’s a super important one. I try to keep that in my head all the time.
Is there anything else the two of you would like to share with readers?
JANET: I’m just going to underline or lift a little higher some of what Ben talked about: sustainability. Because we’re the only LORT theatre in the state, the biggest nonprofit theatre in the state by a lot, sustainability holds a very high value for us. Particularly our foundations, but also all our donors, expect that when they invest in us, they are not investing in us so we can spend all their money in five minutes. They’re investing in us so that this theatre will be here for their children and their grandchildren. That, we find all the time, is a really different value than a lot of our peers. I think particularly peers in cities where there’s a lot of LORT theatres or there’s a lot of competition, there’s more sense of, “How can we compete favorably with our peers?”
That’s not what we think about. We’re thinking about, “How can we make prudent decisions to make great art in the moment while also making sure this institution is here in 50 years?” I think it’s a slightly different call to service than some of our peers have. I used to feel like an endowment was kind of unsexy when we were building an endowment in the early ‘90s, that people thought, “Oh God, that’s so stodgy of you guys.” Now I am so grateful that this city holds that value highly, because we’re going to be here. Are we going to do as much programming as we did before the pandemic soon? Probably not, but the decisions are made with that eye to the future. I don’t know, I’m completely an animal of that viewpoint. I’ve never worked in a different viewpoint. I’ve heard that viewpoint be judged or ridiculed outside of here, but I don’t regret any of that. I’m so glad that’s a value that we hold.
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is the Chicago Editor for American Theatre. email@example.com
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